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“Go to ground” Gets a Bump

A few years back I wrote about the expression “go to ground,” which originated in fox-hunting and came to mean “disappear”–not in the “go missing” sense but as a deliberate act, a sort up souped-up lying low (or, as it’s nearly universally rendered in the U.S., “laying low”).

The expression has been picked up by U.S. sources in the past week in reference to Christoper Steele, the former British intelligence officer who put together a dossier alleging bad behavior by Donald Trump and, when the news came out, flew the coop. So the New York Times had this headline:


While checking out recent uses of the expression, I noticed something I didn’t mention in my original post. In As mentioned in the original post, in British football and rugby coverage, “go to ground” is used more literally–meaning a player who for one reason or another has actually ended up on the ground. As in:


As Tara McAllister Byum has pointed out on Twitter, a slang expression long favored by doctors  and used in the 1978 novel “The House of God” is “Gomers go to ground.” (“Gomer”–possibly an acronym for Get Out of My Emergency Room.) According to an article in Phramacy Times, “The gomer was often an elderly patient, and one of the ‘laws] of the book was that ‘gomers go to ground,’ referring to their tendency to fall or fall out of bed.”

Very British-y “Brilliant” in a Samsung Ad


(For more on “brilliant”as NOOB, read this.)


NOOBSian Stuart Semmel of Yale University has passed along two new (to me) NOOBs. The first is the verb “liaise,” a back-formation from the French noun “liaison,” which originally meant a sauce-thickening agent (who knew?) but has since referred to a close (sometimes intimate) connection between two people or organizations. The OED describes “liaise” as “originally Services’ slang” and provides a first citation from 1928: ” [Lord Fisher said in 1916] I want a keep in touch with the Navy and so ‘liaise’ or exchange inventions which may be suitable.”

It is certainly a Britishism (which achieved massive gains in popularity in the last four decades of the 20th century), as seen in the Google Ngrams Viewer graph:


I had heard it over the years, but mostly in the context of critiques of business jargon and “verbing” nouns. Back in 2005, in a column about back-formations, the great William Safire of the New York Times commented, “I don’t like liaise, a self-important, bureaucratic substitute for ‘work with.'” (He added, interestingly, “I like ‘surveil,’ because ‘surveillance’ has more of a pervasive and sinister quality than ‘watch’ or ‘follow.'”)

As the graph shows, “liaise” has gained some popularity in the U.S., but still is used much less than across the pond. Since Safire’s column, it has been used (by apparently American writers and sources) fifteen times in the Times, ten of them since 2010. This came from a February 2016 article about Libya:

Libyan officials and news media outlets have reported the presence of American, French, British and Italian special forces units in the country in recent weeks, ostensibly on reconnaissance missions and to liaise with local militias.

Next up: Semmel’s second NOOB (and therein lies a clue).


Writing in the New York Times Book Review yesterday, Woody Allen (invoking the sort of stereotypes that would be offensive from the pen of a Gentile and maybe even from a Jew like Allen) referred to the American playwright George S. Kaufman as having a “standard tribal hooter and the natural blessing of wit common to his people.”

Benjamin Dreyer, an editor at the American publishing firm Random House, remarked on Twitter that he had only recently become aware of “hooter” as a slang term for “nose” and then had this illuminating exchange:


Mr. Dreyer’s last assessment is spot-on, in my humble opinion.

“Hooter” for nose isn’t all that old; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from the 1958 book Bang to rights: an account of prison life, by Frank Norman. It’s clearly derived from another British sense of “hooter”–what Americans would call a car horn. Along the same lines, in Australian Rules Football, the hooter is the horn that sounds at the end of a period or a game. In the U.S., traditionally, the main slang meaning of “hooter” is the female breast, as seen in the chain of fine dining establishments.

Woody Allen (whose review proves–again in my humble opinion–that he’s much better at writing comic essays than movies) was in his high S.J. Perelman mode, which includes a mix not only of Britishisms but of Yiddish, low slang, and polysyllabic archaicisms. Thus his “hooter” doesn’t signal or awkward a widespread U.S. adoption. (We’re good with “honker” and “schnozz.”) The only other recent use in the Times was from book critic Dwight Garner, himself an estimable stylist. Reviewing a collection of Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesebury” cartoons in 2010, Garner referred to “the pencil-shaped hooter that his main character, Mike Doonesbury, has sticking out of his face.”



The ever-observant Nancy Friedman has sent along a screenshot of a Wall Street Journal headline: “Tehran officials say accord is now harder to undo, threaten clawbacks if scuppered.”

Never mind about “clawbacks” for the moment–the thing that caught her, and my, interest is “scuppered.” The OED tells us that the verb “scupper” originated in the late nineteenth century as military slang for “to surprise and massacre.” There followed a “colloquial” twentieth-century meaning, “To defeat, ruin, destroy, put an end to.”  By 1957–when a writer for The Economist noted, “The suspicion is still alive that there would have been secret rejoicing in Whitehall if the French Assembly had scuppered the common market”–it had entered (British) journalese, in a sense similar to that seen in the Wall Street Journal headline.

And it definitely is a Britishism, as seen in this Google Ngram Viewer chart:


I reckon that the recent popularity of “scuppered” is in part due to its aural resemblance to “scuttle”–originally a nautical term meaning to bore holes in the boat for the purpose of sinking it, and in figurative use by the 1888, after which it has been equally popular in the U.S. and U.K. according to Google Ngram Viewer. ( “The day..began with bad news. The Rent Subsidy Bill had been scuttled without opportunity to work on it.” Ladybird Johnson, White House Diaries, 1965.) “Scuppered” may (wrongly) make  journos and subeditors feel that they are using a fresher word than the tired old “scuttled.”

In any case, “scuppered” is gaining a foothold among U.S. writers, who may (wrongly) feel that using a Britishism makes them seem cool. It has appeared in the New York Times five times in 2016, first from the pen of columnist Maureen Dowd:

Of course, if [Hillary Clinton] had been a better listener on her health care initiative and the Iraq invasion, those two towering issues might not have scuppered her.

And most recently from the pen of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who wrote for the December 5 edition:

A trade deal between the European Union and hardly threatening Canada was almost scuppered by a recalcitrant Belgian province concerned about the effects of globalization on local workers.


When Americans read the news today, oh boy, many of them searched for a word to describe how they felt. Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster reported the top lookups at the online dictionary site were bigot, fascism, concede, xenophobe, trump, misogyny, and deplorable. As for me, “horrified” and “devastated” came to mind.

I encountered another alternative in a tweet by the American writer Ben Greenman:


Americans tend to think of “gutted” as meaning “eviscerated.” As blogger Lynne Murphy noted when she wrote about the word in 2009, the Brits have recently adopted a metaphorical sense. The  OED reports it originated as prison slang and defines it as: “bitterly disappointed; devastated, shattered; utterly fed up.” The dictionary’s first citation is a 1984 entry in Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang and the first use in the wild is from a 1987 article in the English newspaper The Independent: “We are a..strong family, but we are gutted by Shani’s death.

All subsequent citations are from British sources. But “gutted” so perfectly fits the mood of so many here that I think Greenman is merely the harbinger of a U.S. boom.


When tapes emerged of Donald Trump bragging of kissing women and grabbing them by their private parts without their permission, he said (by way of apology or explanation), “This was locker-room banter.”

Locker rooms all over America immediately spoke out in protest, but what caught my ear was banter.  The word came up in this blog a couple of years ago in reference to the“cheeky Nandos” meme, which someone (facetiously) attempted to explain in lad-culture terms:

okay, its a friday night and you and the lads are out on the lash getting wankered in town, harassing women on the street, all wearing chinos, yeah? your top mate Ryan (proper LAD) wants to get something to eat so suggests pizza hut, bit old school and full of kids so banter wont be top notch, instead you get a cheeky nandos and the banter is sick as #bantersaurusrex #bantanddec #barackobanter #banterclaus #archbishopofbanterbury class night with the lads

But the word far predates Nando’s, having emerged in both noun and verb form in the late 17th century (etymology unknown). Green’s Dictionary of Slang quotes a 1698 slang compendium defining the noun as “a pleasant way of prating, which seems in earnest but is in jest.” Twelve years later, Jonathan Swift observed that the word was “first borrowed from the bullies in White Friars, then fell among the footmen”; he condemned it — along with kidney and bamboozle — as part of his brief to reform the English language.

Swift’s complaint fell on deaf ears (as such complaints almost always do), and banter continued to be a popular word; Henry Fielding even used it as a character name in his satirical play The Historical Register of 1736. Things kept on in much the same way until the decade of the 2000s, when English lad culture adopted  it as a favorite word for lads’ conversational back-and-forth, as in this scene from one of the Inbetweeners films (sort of a younger British version of the Hangover series).

Not that banter isn’t used by oldsters in the United Kingdom. Scottish officers purposefully employ banter when patrolling the mean streets; a delegation from the New York Police Department recently traveled to Glasgow to observe them in action. After members of London’s Garrick Club voted to continue to exclude women, one member said it was because he and his colleagues wanted to preserve the “camaraderie” and “banter” of the club.

Banter begat the phrase having the bants, which an Urban Dictionary contributor defined this way in 2010:

Engaging in the age old English tradition of bantering.

1. Fast paced witty exchanges, with tremendous japes had by all

2. General good times with clean fun and joviality

“We were all down the pub, having the bants when Pete came over and bought us another round. Great bants!”

Meanwhile, banter became a sort of all-purpose excuse for boys behaving badly:

  • Niall Horan of the boy band One Direction greeted female fans at Dublin’s airport, saying: “Remember the last time I walked out here? Remember the last time I walked out here and sprained my knee, you shower of c***s!” After getting some blowback, he tweeted, “It was just banter with fans who I think of more as mates.”
  • On the British reality show I’m a Celebrity, one D-lister said of another, “What the f**k is this p***k doing in here? What’s he offering?’ Why the f**k are you in here? What are you? What sort of skill have you got?” His subsequent explanation: “We’re great friends, we are going to be for a long time — it was total banter.”
  • In 2014, Cardiff City football manager Malky Mackay wrote in a text message, referring to a sports agent, “Go on, fat Phil. Nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers.” The explanation from the League Managers Association? This and other messages were “sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter.”

A  teacher banned the word, according to an article on the BBC website,

saying it had become an ‘excuse for inappropriate behaviour’ in his classroom, in Gorleston, Norfolk.

“If I catch somebody nicking someone’s pencilcase, calling another student a derogatory name or thumping them on the back, nine times out of ten I’ll be met with a, ‘Siiiir, it’s just bantaaaaaaah!’” he wrote on his blog.

A (male) poet was quoted in the article as saying the word had become “more downmarket than it used to be. It’s something I used to say quite a bit but it’s taken on quite a laddish connotation now.”

Even before last week, the Banter Excuse had started making its way across the Atlantic. A Brown University student accused of sexual misconduct said, as part of his defense, that he and the alleged victim had engaged in “sexual banter.”

Back in the 18th century, Swift wrote, “I have done my utmost for some Years past, to stop the Progress of Mob and Banter; but have been plainly born down by Numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.” If banter takes hold here and becomes the go-to excuse for having said racist, sexist, hateful, or otherwise horrible things, then I am going full-Swift on the word. Who’s with me?